Ouray newspaper publishers say the attention around stolen papers robbed town of the real story: an alleged crime in their community

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Main Street in Ouray, Saturday Jan. 22, 2022.

It was a busy, eventful week for the Ouray County Plaindealer. But, it wasn’t the type of busy publishers wanted. Hours after distributing the Jan. 14-20 edition of the newspaper throughout the county, the copies were stolen from 12 kiosks

Co-publisher Erin McIntyre said the paper has received calls from the New York Times, the Washington Post and other national outlets. It’s not the kind of attention the paper wanted.

“We want to report the news. We don't want to be the news, and we need to get back to focusing on what's important,” McIntyre said. “And I think if there's one other thing I could say that I think is important, it's time for the community's attention to return to the problem that this was reported in our community.” 

The front page of the stolen edition featured reporting on a local sexual assault that allegedly occurred at the local police chief’s house.  

McIntyre and her husband, co-publisher Mike Wiggins, spent much of Thursday getting the papers reprinted before local restaurant owner Paul Choate admitted Thursday night that he had stolen the papers. McIntyre and Wiggins restocked the kiosks Friday morning. On Saturday, Choate was cited by police. In a Facebook post Monday, Choate said he didn’t agree with the article scheduled to be published the morning he stole the papers. He explained he’d agreed with previous reporting on the case, but thought the Jan. 14-20 edition crossed a line.

“On the evening of January 18th, I became aware of an article being released the next morning,” Choate wrote on Facebook. “The next morning I collected approximately 130 newspapers. I realize that this was not the appropriate response. 

“I want to highlight that the first article published in the January 4-10 edition of the newspaper provided sufficient and well written information about the case without delving into explicit details and re-victimize the girl involved. However, the subsequent article crossed a line, potentially discouraging future victims from coming forward and seeking justice,” Choate wrote.

Choate said he returned the papers and offered compensation for any lost revenue.

He said he turned himself into the Ouray County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 20.

Allegations of sexual assault at Ouray Police Chief’s house involved stepson

The front page article in last week’s edition was titled “Girl: Rapes occurred at chief’s house.” It detailed allegations by a 17-year-old that she was sexually assaulted multiple times at a late-night birthday party at the home of Ouray Police Chief Jeff Wood on May 14, 2023.

According to the Plaindealer, a Colorado Bureau of Investigations affidavit said the night involved drug use and underage drinking. The victim, who was not named in the Plaindealer article, told investigators that she was raped at least three times in a bedroom and a bathroom by two different people. In December, three suspects were arrested in connection with the case: Gabriel Trujillo, Ashton Whittington and a minor who is Chief Wood’s stepson. Trujillo and Whittington are expected to appear in court Thursday. The stepson appeared in a virtual court hearing on Jan. 9. He has another hearing scheduled for Feb. 1.

McIntyre, who wrote the story, said she provided the affidavit that detailed the crime to a liaison who was in contact with the victim. The publishers requested it be passed along to the victim before publication.

“It was someone who was advocating on her behalf, and we didn't want her to be surprised about details that would be in a story in the newspaper,” McIntyre said. “We know now that the victim did not receive that before the story was published. And I regret that. I'm not really sure what else to say other than we thought that she was going to receive it in time to know what was coming.”

McIntyre also had contacted Wood to let him know that his stepson was going to be named prior to publishing their initial Jan. 3 story about the alleged assault. Mugshots of all three suspects were featured in that story. According to the CBI, Trujillo was 19 and Whittington had turned 18 the day before the alleged assault. The minor would turn 18 ten days later, according to McIntyre. His name did not appear on the arresting documents, but McIntyre stands by her decision to include it in the article.

“Just because the stepson was only 10 days away from turning 18, that wasn't a large enough reason for me to keep his name out of the paper when he was accused of the same crime as someone who was a bit older than him,” McIntyre said. “It's too serious to hide that. And also, we have the issue of if we didn't name him, how are we going to get into the details?”

Publishers: Choate’s actions didn’t reflect motives

The publishers had three different conversations with Choate before and after he returned the stolen newspapers in a garbage bag Thursday. 

McIntyre said Choate claimed to be apologetic, but then began launching into tirades about how the newspaper was ruining the community and needed to report more positive news. He cited stories about COVID policies at the Ouray KOA campground during the pandemic, the recall of former Ouray County Sheriff Lance FitzGerald and an intestinal parasite outbreak at Tacos del GNAR.

“The bottom line is we are tasked with reflecting the community. Our job is to communicate facts, however gruesome, to show what's going on here,” McIntryre said. “And as journalists, our role is not to be cheerleaders. We're not the chamber of commerce. And while we balance hard news with stories that inspire empathy and compassion, sometimes we have to write stories like this. We don't like it, but it's our responsibility to let people know about things they need to know here.”

In a statement on the paper’s online newsletter, the publishers described Choate’s response as a “grudge.” It’s something the paper’s owners said they were not aware of prior to the theft.

The Ouray County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that Choate was not a member or relative of local law enforcement and was not associated with the defendants. Choate was charged with petty theft. In an emailed statement, Ouray County Sheriff Justin Perry said his office is working on additional charges specific to newspaper distribution with the District Attorney’s Office.

More damage caused than intended

The Ouray County Plaindealer has been in publication since 1877. 

McIntyre and Wiggins bought the paper in 2019. Since the couple took over ownership, they said the paper has received negative feedback from previous stories covered. Most retaliations resulted in canceled subscriptions. 

Another case was three years ago, when the Plaindealer published a story about the KOA Campground that was flouting restrictions on lodging put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Associated Press. Someone taped over the coin slot on the newspaper rack at the campground and covered the plexiglass window with a sign asking them to remove the rack. 

McIntyre says Choate caused more harm than good with his actions — especially to the victim.

“If he had not stolen those papers, the story would've been over in a week. It would be replaced with a brand new fresh paper. But here we are still talking about it a week later, and it's become this international story,” McIntyre said. “It's gone so much farther than anybody ever thought, and certainly farther than I ever would've wanted it to. And the irony is, the details that he didn't like in the story have seen so much more publicity because of his actions. It's nothing we did. “

McIntyre referred to this experience as the Streisand Effect, an unintended consequence in an attempt to hide, censor or remove information. The term was coined after the actress-singer Barbara Streisand after she unsuccessfully sued a photographer for including her house in a series of photographs documenting coastline erosion.

The Plaindealer has a paywall online. But for public safety stories, they allow free access. Even so, McIntyre said she received a lot of requests to re-print the paper.

“We actually had a lot of subscribers ask us to do that because they felt like if someone was trying to suppress this story for some reason, then it should be more widely available,” McIntyre said. “And our motivation really was we can't get the papers printed fast enough. We know some people here still don't have the internet, and they really rely on the printed copy of the paper.” 

The whole experience has been motivation to press charges against Choate, McIntyre said, and she hopes the paper can get back to reporting the news and not being a part of the news.

“This whole thing with the stolen newspapers, it's a distraction. We need to get back to the important thing, which is that there's a very serious crime that has been alleged to have happened in our community. We need to focus on that,” McIntyre said.

Editors Note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect information provided by the sheriff's department, to correct the spelling of the Plaindealer's co-publisher, to clarify the newspaper's contact with the liaison to the victim, and to describe where mugshots appeared in the paper.